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"You won't ... let me fall."

"Probably not. But I won't let you past either."

"Didn't ... you think you could take me in a fair fight?"

"We live in a universe where entropy has an inbuilt advantage. Fairness is a fiction. We prove ourselves by our ability to surmount unfair odds."

You really do talk too much. She'd braced her knees higher while he spoke, and now lunged up and forward to grab at his leg, hoping to yank him off balance. But he simply reached down and dragged her up by the collar. A moment later he was cradling her like a child as she struggled in vain ... and then she realized he was dangling her over the edge. Okay, pushing away is not the way to go here. Especially since a falling body would curve antispinward, away from the cliff face.



So she opted for the Bugs maneuver. Abruptly, she grabbed Thorne's head in her hands and kissed him on the nose. She'd wanted to go for the lips, but this more absurd approach proved more disarming. The nonplussed Thorne loosened his grip enough for her to clamber over his shoulders, jumping down behind him and running for the top. She heard him chuckle before his footfalls came after her.

The last part of the climb wasn't as rough as the cliff face, but the air was colder and thinner up here, the ground covered in snow and ice. The Vanguardian metabolism demanded a lot of oxygen. Emry hoped that being only half-Vanguardian, and half Thorne's mass, would give her an edge.

Unfortunately, his longer reach and stride proved more telling. Soon his hand grabbed her ankle from below and yanked her back half a meter with her face in the snow. She kicked down at his face and forced him to let go. She could hear his breath rasping as she clambered away. At least I winded him. But now there's wet snow in my cleavage. Great.

Now the peak was only a few dozen meters away. But Thorne overtook her again, tackling her against the sixty-degree slope and dragging her back by her waistband. She elbowed him in the head, which dazed him a bit, so she hit and kicked some more to try to knock him back downhill. But his inertia was twice hers, so she only ended up dislodging herself. He recovered enough to take advantage, stiff-arming her in the gut. She fell back a couple of meters, catching herself with one hand. Thorne clambered farther up while Emry recovered her grip. Growling, she pulled herself up after him and grabbed at his left ankle.

It was a mistake. Thorne kicked his leg out away from the rock face, jerking her out with it. She dangled for a moment, but promptly brought her knees up, pushed off, and somersaulted backward using Thorne's ankle as a pivot, intending to kick him in the face. He dodged at the last instant, clinging to the slope by his right hand and foot only. She let go and let her momentum flip her upright again, reaching for a new handhold above Thorne. But his left arm caught her in the midriff, knocking the wind from her. One swipe of his arm and she was falling through the air, then tumbling back down to the plateau.

Gasping for breath, Emry looked up to see Thorne climbing swiftly, surely. In moments, he straddled the summit, his hands on his hips, king of the mountain. Emry slumped where she sat and just tried to catch her breath.

"Well?" Thorne called down. "Are you just going to lie there?"

"What do you want?" she shouted back. "I lost!"

"That's no excuse to give up!"

She stared at him for a long moment.

Then she pulled herself to her feet and began climbing once more. Her throat burned from the cold air, its moisture choking her.

When she finally reached the apex, Thorne took her hand and pulled her up alongside him. He smiled, then turned her face outward to gaze upon Vanguard stretched out below them. "There. You see? You may have lost, but you still earned the reward."

"Pretty view," she gasped. "So what? I got a higher view ... from the s.p.a.ceport. It's a hollow sphere, dummy!"

He glared at her, but simply said, "Perhaps to one who lived on Earth for a time, it seems a greater reward."

"Yeah, well ... after all that ... I'm entitled to a bigger reward than this."

"Then let me give you one."

He lifted her off the ground once again ... and this time his lips devoured hers, and his arms engulfed her body. It stunned her even more than being knocked halfway down a mountain ... but she was feeling no pain this time. It was exactly the reward she would've claimed herself if he hadn't made the first move. Her arms folded around him, her mouth opening readily to him.

Thorne carried her down to a relatively flat depression on the other side of the peak and sat on a protruding boulder, lowering her onto his lap. She didn't even remember releasing her zipseal lock, but somehow she found herself naked, the heat of Thorne's bare flesh throwing the icy chill of the wind into sharp relief. Before long, they were tumbling in the snow, a welcome relief for her overheated body-though she spent most of the time on top of him, of course, since his mass would crush her otherwise.

They kept at it for as long as they could stand the cold, and then Thorne called in an aircar to take them back to his chambers. Once there, after sharing a warming drink, he stripped her once more, massaged her aches away, and took her again.

In all her life, Emry had never been so completely overwhelmed by a lover. True, she'd only taken partners strong enough to hold their own against her, but even so, she'd rarely been outmatched in strength. And Thorne took full advantage of his strength, dominating her completely.

Not that he wasn't considerate or attentive. On the contrary, he was extraordinarily responsive to her desires, her likes and dislikes. He probed out her most sensitive areas with expert precision and did incredible things to them. He gave her everything she could ask for and more, usually before she could ask.

Yet he remained very much in control. Emry was too completely carried away to assert much of anything herself. But just this once, she decided, she was fine with that. If Eliot wanted to make a regular thing out of this-and she profoundly hoped he did-it would have to proceed on a more egalitarian footing. But for now, it was certainly a h.e.l.l of a ride.

And she had to admit ... right now, with the weight of worlds on her shoulders, it was strangely refreshing to surrender all her responsibility and power and will for one night ... and just let herself be taken care of.

It wasn't until the next morning that Emry gave a thought to her growing relationship with Psyche. She felt somewhat guilty about that when she confessed it to Psyche, but the lissome Vanguardian absolved her readily. "Think nothing of it. What matters is that you let yourself be happy. The last thing I'd want is for you to treat my father as a one-night stand and avoid exploring where this relationship could lead. I'll happily step aside, as long as we stay friends."

"I'm not even sure it is a relationship," Emry said. "It was just lots and lots of really exhausting s.e.x."

Psyche just looked at her. "You know I can read you better than that. You trusted him. Relaxed your guard like you never have with any other man. If our time together has helped prepare you for taking that kind of step, then I'm happy for you, and for my father."

Emry was grateful for her understanding-and oddly unsurprised. Maybe she'd just known that what she and Psyche shared had been more a friendship with benefits than a romance. Maybe that was why she hadn't felt bad about sleeping with Thorne. Not that she wouldn't have slept with him anyway, admittedly.

And Psyche, gregarious as she was, had no trouble finding other companionship. That night, at a party she threw to celebrate Emry's joining of the "team," Psyche showed up flanked by two burly male escorts, whom Emry recognized as the two men she herself had picked out for their impromptu orgy the month before. And Psyche didn't exactly discourage attention from the other men at the party. Unlike at the conference, she didn't need to win these people's trust and respect, so she was bold and frankly seductive. She owned the attention of everyone here, and she openly reveled in it.

If anything, she took it a little too far. Emry saw a twinge of jealousy in her bigger escort's eyes, and it seemed that Psyche was deliberately provoking it through her brazen behavior with other men. Emry tried to divert the big guy with her own flirtations, reminding him of the wild times they'd shared that first night, though her futile struggle to remember his name hampered her efforts. And he only seemed to have eyes for Psyche. If anything, it seemed that the men were all giving Emry a wide berth, unwilling to take chances now that she was with their alpha male. But in the big guy's case, it seemed to be more about the daughter than the father. Eventually, when Psyche spent an inordinately long time in a hot, intimate dance with another brawny Vanguardian, the big guy lost his temper and tried to cut in by force. Before long, it was a free-for-all. Emry was amused at first, but soon realized the two men were not holding back. If this kept up, someone could end up seriously injured, or worse. But Psyche was watching the fight raptly, giggling. "You think this is funny?" Emry cried. "You encouraged them, didn't you?"

"Can I help it if they both fell in love with me?"

"Yes! You can dial back the pheromones or something."

"Emry, Emry-you know pheromones aren't a love potion. You're overreacting. Besides, I told them there was plenty of me to go around. But you know men, always so possessive. They're so cute that way."

But the fight was getting out of hand now, so Emry threw herself into the fray. Against two fellow Vanguardians who both outmassed her considerably, it was probably not the wisest choice. But once the men realized Thorne's lover was in harm's way, they reined themselves in and let her pull them apart. Once she made sure they weren't severely hurt, she tossed them out and told them to call themselves an ambulance. "And call yourselves a few other names while you're at it!" she added.

Then she whirled on Psyche. "And you! What happened to your gift for reading people, huh?"

Psyche was contrite. "I read them fine. But I read that they wanted me, and that they'd fight to have me, and ... well, that's very flattering. I just let myself get carried away by their emotions. I try to give people what they want, and those men wanted to prove their prowess by fighting over me." She shrugged. "Besides, you looked like you were having fun." Emerald stared. "Okay, I was stupid. Sometimes it's just hard to gauge how strong one of us actually is. I didn't think that it might be dangerous." She blushed. "And ... maybe I'm feeling a little lonely now that you're ... I guess I just wanted attention."

The resultant guilt quashed Emry's anger. "d.a.m.n. Psyche..."

"Forget it. It's okay." She hugged Emry. "Thank you for keeping the peace. I'm lucky to have you as a friend."

The next day, Zephyr expressed concern about Psyche's actions. "It strikes me that someone so gifted at manipulating others could come to enjoy it a little too much," he said over her selfone.

"But two of her own people? What could she have to gain from that?" Emry challenged.

"That's my point. It can become an end in itself."

But Emry couldn't believe that of Psyche. Perhaps she had enjoyed toying with those men's affections when she'd believed it to be in good fun, but her remorse had been genuine. And Emry, of all people, couldn't begrudge her friend a bit of a wild streak.

And there was no doubt of her loyalty as a friend. Later that day, Psyche issued a press statement responding to Tai's insinuations by clarifying the nature and goals of the recent conference and the ongoing diplomatic process it had set into motion. Lacking solid evidence beyond what Tai had already preempted, she declined to make direct accusations. With regard to the charges against Emry, Psyche simply stated that she could personally vouch for Emerald Blair's whereabouts for the entire period when she was supposedly colluding with Cowboy. "The Vanguard has complete confidence in Emerald's integrity," she added, "and her commitment to the principles of the Troubleshooter Corps." With regard to her status as a wanted fugitive, Psyche stated that the Vanguard had no extradition treaty with the Cerean States and that Emry was their guest for as long as she wished to remain. "Emerald is the daughter of one of our own," she said, "and we take care of our family."

Emry was at once moved and troubled by that statement. Family wasn't something she was used to being a part of-and this family in particular was one she'd never expected to connect with again. The Vanguardians she met kept wanting to talk about her father, to tell her what a great guy he'd been or how much they imagined she reminded them of him. Nodding politely and changing the subject was rapidly becoming a new habit for her.

But the h.e.l.l of it was, she liked it here. The Vanguardians were a lively, robust people, and their whole habitat was designed to challenge, stimulate, and sate individuals with abilities and appetites rivaling Emry's own. She felt the kind of belonging that she'd only ever known with the Freakshow and the Troubleshooters ... and with her mother and father, back in another life. She liked Psyche, bonding with her like the sister she'd never had. She liked getting to meet Lydie Clement, Soaring Hawk Darrow, and the other surviving champions from the sixties and seventies, soaking in their tales of adventure and what it was like to be the first real superheroes.

And she really liked Eliot Thorne. He was everything she'd ever fantasized him to be. True, he could be controlling, reserved and forbidding, but she enjoyed the challenge of breaking through his defenses. Yet she was uneasy with just how strong her feelings for him were becoming. There was something she felt with him that she'd never known with any other man, and she was afraid to think about what it might be.

So when Grandma Rachel invited her to brunch, Emry was grateful for the excuse to decline an invitation to work out with Eliot. Their workouts were certainly entertaining, even before they turned into wild s.e.x; but she appreciated the chance to decompress and get her mind off of Eliot Thorne.

Inevitably, though, it wasn't long before Rachel asked, "So-you and Eliot, huh? I guess I'm not surprised. An alpha male like him ... if anything, it's a wonder it took so long."

"And ... you're okay with it?" Emry asked between bites of truly superb French toast.

"As long as you are. As long as you're aware that you shouldn't expect anything remotely resembling monogamy from him, and are able to accept that. Other than that, he's a fine catch. A bit of a control freak, yes, but you're strong enough to stand up to him."

"So ... you figure I'm just one conquest in a long line?"

"Ohh, don't sell yourself short!" Rachel seemed to misunderstand which answer Emry was hoping to hear. "Even by Vanguard standards, Emry, you're quite a woman. You're powerful, intense, and Eliot is drawn to that. He takes lots of lovers, but I think-and please don't repeat this to him, I'd get an earful-I think he's lonely at heart. For all his power, all he's built and plans to build, he's missing something. Maybe it's an equal. Someone he can love, as much as he loves Psyche."

Sensing Emry's nervousness, Rachel laughed. "Oh, here I am being an old yenta, embarrassing you. Don't mind me. What do I know about all this anyway? I spend all my time with my work, and my babies," she said, patting her belly.

"How many have you had?" Emry asked.

"Ohh, I hardly remember anymore. Building a large population in an enclosed community like this, a lot of us have to be pregnant a lot of the time. I've probably carried more babies than most anyone else. Some of them have been surrogacies, though, not genetically mine, or no more than a bit."

"You must really like morning sickness."

"Well, one of my mods is being less p.r.o.ne to that. Still, all these pregnancies, they take their toll. But it's worth it. I feel I should have a personal connection to the future I'm helping to design. I get so caught up in my work sometimes-I should never forget that these are people, not just genomes. That they're our children, our responsibility."

She sighed. "Still ... it was different with your father. That was with Liam. That was love, pure and simple. Most of the rest ... they're the children of the community, and we all play a part in raising them. But Richard ... he was my son. And the image of his father...." She blinked away a tear.

"Ohh, Emry," she went on. "I see so much of him when I look at you. Maybe not in the face, but behind the eyes. In your spirit, your strength and sensitivity. In the work you do, giving of yourself, using your gifts to protect others. He would've been so very proud of you, Emerald."

Now Emry had to fight off tears. She put her fork down; she'd lost her appetite. "Don't say that."

"Why not? It's true."

"He didn't approve of fighting."

"He chose not to fight. He never judged those who did. He hated killing, but you're no killer, whatever they're saying. He would have known that."

"No. He wouldn't." The table was blurring before her eyes, getting all watery, so she stood and turned away from it.

A moment later she felt Grandma Rachel's hands on her shoulders. "Emry, I don't understand. You've done nothing that would give Richard any reason to be less than proud. Sure, you had a few wild years, but that was understandable, and you've more than made amends."

"No. No, I haven't come close. I never can."

"I know your father wouldn't have felt that way."

"What do you know?!" Emry whirled on her. "You didn't know him! You never talked to him my whole life! You didn't know ... what happened to him ... what I did to him...."

Rachel stepped back, taking a shuddering breath, but she stayed in control, looking levelly at Emry. "Then tell me."

"I killed him!" she shrieked. It tore out of her, breaking free after years of suppression, and tears spilled forth from the gaping hole it left. Sobbing uncontrollably, she fell into a stunned Rachel's arms. "It's my fau-it's my fault he died. I killed him."

14.

Origin Stories: Great Responsibility December 2105

al-Khwarizmi Science Institute

Sol-Jupiter L3 point

Emry woke. Barely. Something was making her uncomfortable. She tried to drift back off to sleep, but the sensation wouldn't go away. Something was pushing against her back. All of it at once.

A few moments later, she realized it was weight. That startled her fully awake. Yes-it felt like she was under about half a gee. Looking around, she realized she wasn't on the Trident anymore, but in a hospital ward. It all came back to her. The expedition must have gotten back safely.

"Ahh, Emerald, at last!" That was the expedition doctor, Monica Railey, a handsome woman with warm chocolate skin. "Are you with us now? Do you know who you are?"

Emry laughed more than she had reason to; she was still rather punchy. "You kinda gave it away there, Monnie. I'm Emerald, uhh, Jones? Chang? McGillicuddy? Hold on, it's on the tip of my tongue...."

"Okay, she's back," Railey said with a sigh. "Sorry for the obvious question, but you didn't seem quite sure who you were the last time you were awake."

"I was awake before? I don't remember...."

"Most people don't. Even just when coming out of surgery, let alone nearly a month of hibernation. You're actually ahead of the curve there. Must be that Vanguardian physique."

"I'm not a Vanguardian."

Railey studied her for a moment, wearing a look Emry couldn't decipher. "Well ... you know what I mean."

Emry just grunted in response. Railey helped her sit up, handed her a cup of apple juice, and advised her to sip it slowly. Once Emry demonstrated her mastery of that task, Railey decided she could be trusted to finish up on her own, and went to tend to another patient.

As she rehydrated herself, Emry contemplated Railey's words. Not quite sure who I was.... She really wasn't surprised. Emry hadn't had a good answer to that question for over seven years now.





CHAPTER DISCUSSION